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Who Were the Magi of the Nativity?

by Peter Fromm

"When you see a Parthian charger chained to a tombstone in the Land of Israel, the hour of the Messiah will be near."1/ Old Jewish Proverb.

Near Eastern anxieties about Western influence are nothing new. The Maccabean revolt in 167 BC against the Seleucid (Greek) Empire began as a messianic civil war against "Hellenizers" in the Levant of the second century BC. This conflict stands out as representative. After the Maccabeans, later in the first and second centuries AD, the Jesus movement was a similarly messianic affair representing similar political upheaval against foreign occupation, resting as it did on the continuum reaching back to the Hasmonean (Maccabean) Dynasty.

Politics and religion combined inextricably in the concerns that the Maccabeans held. Their religious concerns and the suffering of martyrdom by Jews associated with their revolt were later echoed by the same concerns and sufferings of Jesus' followers. Jesus' first-century messianic mission, his "ministry" as we call it today, was by definition political, something today the Western world has largely glossed over. Pauline propaganda and Early Christian redaction has formed in modern minds a vision of Jesus' spiritual separateness, making him an apolitical Messiah that is untenable in view of the facts. Jesus' personality and intentions are clearly discernible as a factor in political upheaval leading inexorably to the Great Revolt against Rome. A forensic approach to history connects Jesus directly to a powerful messianic political movement that reaches backwards to the Maccabeans and forward from his death to the Bar Kokhba Revolt later in the second century. The story of this development is both irretrievably fragmentary and yet also importantly obvious in the outline of its fragmented form. Attitudes marked by religious investment or sensitivity have thwarted investigation for centuries by intentionally and unintentionally further fragmenting the factual narrative, something originally obscured by Roman propaganda as strategic communications. However, the facts have not all disappeared.

The Magi

When trying to reach backwards to see the evolution of ideas and the outline of history, one has to consider basic questions about modern dominant religious and historical narratives, questions that cry out for answers. Some obvious questions follow: Why is Jesus, an ostensibly humble Galilean peasant carpenter, so importantly ubiquitous in modern narrative? Why does our Western political and moral world-view so closely resemble that of Imperial Rome (and not that of the Republican Romans)? Why did Rome so fear the early "Jewish Christians," find them abominable, and martyr them in the arena? Why did the Romans finally accept Christianity as the state religion? Why did the Roman founder of Christianity, Paul, think he could get away with hijacking Jesus' name? Why does Paul urge his followers to obey Roman law while contesting the members of Jesus' own family? Why does Paul protest repeatedly that he is not a liar while disparaging Jesus' brothers in sarcastic terms? Why did the second-century Roman authorities interrogate the grandchildren of Jesus' brothers? Finally, why did fourth-century Christians imbue Jesus with a concrete divinity? One could ask many other questions following this line of inquiry.

One can also find plausible likely answers to these questions in the textual and archaeological record that has come down to us. However, the arguments supporting these answers must coherently connect the fragmented evidence that we do have. Textual analysis and reconstitution of a probable historical narrative has profited from the close internal examination of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) and the Nag Hammadi library. These finds have corroborated important data points preserved by the Early Church. Much of that material has gone ignored and obscured, but the clerics and historians of the past have left important threads to decipher and link. This legacy has occurred partly because of the Church Fathers' and Roman propagandists' inherent cluelessness about the future of archaeology and historiography, but references to probable facts exist mostly because of the theological need to refute them. The corroborating evidence from Early Church sources, Roman histories, the Nag Hammadi library, and the DSS, provides the data points for linking together a fascinating picture about what most likely happened in Palestine 2000 years ago, why it happened, and what we may make of it for understanding our world better. My goal in this essay is to address one question not raised above but one that helps to unlock the answers to all the others. The question I want to answer is this: Why is there a tradition that Magi bearing riches came from the East to honor Jesus Christ?

The relevant passage is this--
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.2/
Joseph Raymond proposes that Jesus was the object of Parthian Magi visitation because he was a Hasmonean prince related to the last Maccabean King, Antigonus II Mattathais through his daughter.3/

Beyond this observation, with which I fully agree, I want to add that the Magi probably came from the Diaspora in Babylon or Khorasan (if Judaic religious tradition is correct), and they came to stir up trouble for Herod and for Roman-occupied Palestine. Whatever their mission was, they largely succeeded in stirring up much trouble indeed for the Romans and Herod's progeny.

Rome and Parthia

A major realization is important here: Most Jews at this time lived in Babylon in the heart of the Parthian Empire and likely, in Khorasan.4/ According to one tradition, ten tribes of the Israelites were sent into captivity to Khorasan by the Assyrian conqueror Shalmaneser V in 722 BC. This story is legendary, but it rings true. Khorasan is an area in Inner Asia that abuts northern India.5/ The Persians conquered this area in the sixth century BC, but not before the Babylonians in 597, 586, and 537 BC also deported large waves of Judean Israelites from Palestine into captivity, yet again, this time ensconcing them in and around Babylon. There were so many Jews in the region by the time of Cyrus the Great that estimates have put them at 20 percent of the population of the entire Persian Empire.6/

Only 40,000 of the Judeans returned to Palestine when Cyrus the Great gave them their freedom to return in the late sixth century BC.7/ Later, the Parthian Empire in Iran emerged from the chaos of the Wars of the post-Alexander Diadochi, and this newly ascendant Iranian tribe inherited the great bulk of the Inner Asian Jewish population. Important to remember later is that, if the Biblical tradition about Khorasan is right, the vast majority of these Israelites were living in or very near what is today India. The population of Palestinian Jews would have grown significantly by the time of Alexander, as would the number of Babylonian Jews and those ostensibly in Khorasan.

At the time of Jesus, Syria and Palestine rested on the border between the world's superpowers of the age, Rome and Parthia. The Parthians had vital interests in undoing Roman power and administration in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. As Robert Eisenman says in James the Brother of Jesus, "The Persian Parthians . . . were always fomenting trouble among Jewish Messianists in the Roman Empire."8/ Most Christian apologists never mention the Parthians, and most parishioners therefore probably have no idea who they were. Modern Christianity, excepting those Christians who study the history, is largely innocent of any knowledge of the Parthian Empire. The pious historian Paul Johnson even managed to write a 600-page, critically acclaimed History of the Jews with only two mentions of the Parthian Empire, while most Jews of the first century lived in the heart of Parthia.

For two hundred years, Parthia was Rome's most implacable enemy, and it was far more intimately involved in stirring up local antipathy for Roman administration in first-century Judea and Palestine than traditional clergy have ever been wont or able to discover to their congregations. After Pompey the Great's war with Armenia (69-60 BC), in which the Romans took Edessa and annexed Osroene (a Parthian client kingdom), Parthia had a series of 11 major wars with Rome that extended to 202 AD.9/ Of these wars, the establishment of client states and puppet rulers precipitated or aggravated most of them. These wars over buffer states, concurrent with the rise of Jesus' family, included agitation with Roman Herodian rulers that contributed to the Great Revolt. One could argue that the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD traces its origins to Parthian victory over the Romans at Carrhae (near Edessa) in 53 BC. The Parthian general Surena and his army massacred Crassus's legions at Carrhae in a battle that shook the ancient world. It was the worst blow to Rome since Cannae, and it was one of the most lopsided defeats of any army ever. Around 25,000 Roman legionaries were killed outright, while over 10,000 were taken prisoner and never returned-it was an outrageous slaughter, especially considering the disturbing fact that very few Parthians lost their lives.10/

One has to understand that the Roman legions at that point in history were very near to being the best soldiers that ever existed on the planet. They were far more professional, battle-tested, and lethal than the soldiers of the Punic Wars. We cannot sense the shock that this disaster sent through the Roman world, but we still hear echoes of it today. Carrhae's dire ramifications ripple still mostly unrecognized in modern history. The disaster facilitated the first Roman Civil War by destroying the First Triumvirate (in the death of Crassus), and it led directly to Julius Caesar's antagonism with Pompey the Great. Caesar's rise led to civil war, and his subsequent assassination led to further civil war and the destruction of the Roman Republic. The Parthian Empire's interference in Roman affairs in the East, virulent after Carrhae, directly affected wars in Roman Asia for at least two hundred more years-the formative period for Imperial Rome. As the military historians R.E. and T.N. Dupuy note, "Carrhae . . . unnecessarily aroused the undying enmity of the Parthians."11/ Its turbulent wake returned Edessa, the capital of Osroene, to Parthian control, helping to spawn the phenomenon called Jesus.

Parthians and Maccabees

Soon after their victory at Carrhae, the Parthians upset the regional applecart by overturning the pro-Roman Idumean rulers in Palestine (e.g., Herod the Great's panic-stricken hegira to Rome). With the help of Parthia, King Antigonus II Mattathias became the new Hasmonean priest-king of Palestine (from 40 to 37 BC). Mattathias was the benefactor of direct Parthian military support in establishing a pro-Parthian, resurgent Maccabean rule. Mattathias' core military guard was a battalion-size element of picked Parthian special forces called the "Freemen."12/ I contend that this unit was likely comprised of Babylonian Jews, hence the name Freemen, but that is a topic for another essay. Josephus details how Mattathias had promised these 500 soldiers the gift of 500 (probably aristocratic) women from Jerusalem.13/ The importance of Hasmonean connections to Jews in Babylon and the potential power they could yield in Palestine are things we today have a hard time appreciating. Their power is illustrated by the fact that the Jews in the time of Trajan were instrumental in preventing the Romans from taking Babylon.14/ More on that later, however.

After Herod's restoration and the subsequent Parthian mauling of Marcus Antonius' legionary anabasis into Parthian territory once again (in 33 BC), the Arsacids appear to have determined to cause as much trouble in Palestine as possible. The Parthians appear to have sought an aspirant from the family of Mattathias, one who had some street credibility for leading an insurgency. Enter the Magi.

Since Synoptic Gospel versions of Jesus' birth and lineage are shrouded in pro-Roman legend, one has every reason to suspect that Parthian connections were intentionally obscured in history and in the New Testament. Still, the echoes are there. The New Testament is largely Hellenistic narrative, and just as Roman Hellenistic discourse obscured or obliterated the Carthaginian, the Celtic, the Greek, the German, the Armenian, and the Pontic narratives, so has it done so to the Parthian and Jewish rebel narratives. For example, the mention of the "Magi" in the Bible neglects to say that they were Parthians. Today, the Magi are associated with Judaism in the East (one tradition says they came from Khorasan), and their connection to Herod in the story of the search for Jesus confirms Parthian involvement. Nevertheless, evidence suggests there was also a Maccabean princess, Mattathias's daughter named Mariamne, who was almost certainly Mary the mother of Jesus.15/ The story of the Magi in the Bible is one obvious data point that notifies posterity that Mary received direct help from the Parthians.16/

Understanding Jesus as the son of a Hasmonean, which is what logic points to, would explain the escape from Herod in the Bible and a multitude of other events. Another important point is that the ranking members of the "House of David," to which Gospel accounts vociferously assign Jesus, were really in Babylon. The Parthians were the first Iranians to give these leaders descended from Solomon in the Iranian Diaspora a Persian royal rank. The Persians of Cyrus freed the Jews in the sixth century BC, but it was the Parthians of the third century BC who made the scions of the House of David into royal Persian princes for "services rendered," and they were called "Resh Galuta."17/ The name literally means "head of the exile" and it pertains to those Jews who the Parthians regarded as honored servants and leaders. The Greeks called these Diaspora Davidic princes "Exilarchs."

Jesus and the Parthians

Jesus the Hasmonean was a clear target of Parthian political intrigue, their candidate for "the King of the Jews," as he was accused of aspiring to by his enemies, as Pontius Pilate declared him to be, and as Jesus, himself obliquely admitted to being. Traditions, Biblical and not, surrounding his birth and death evince Parthian influence.

Worth noting is that a character "Elymas the sorcerer" also called "Bar Jesus," shows up, in Acts, on the island of Cyprus, confirming the presence of Magi in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea in the years just prior to the Great Revolt. The name "Elymas" echoes the name of the kingdom of Elymais in the southwestern part of the Parthian Empire. It may be an implied reference to Parthian Jews. Elymas' sudden appearance in Acts punctuates Paul's conversion and renaming from "Saul." Elymas stands out as a marker to set Paul off from those who would call him a liar (e.g., James and the other "pillars," members of Jesus' family): "You are a swindler, an out-and-out fraud," Paul says to Elymas, "You son of the devil. . . ."18/ Ironically, Paul blinds poor Elymas with magic, suggesting perhaps the blindness of those who would follow any advice the Parthian might have to offer. One cannot escape the suspicion that Elymas is probably fomenting Jewish revolt on the side. Cyprus was a center of revolt during the Kitos War that broke out during Trajan's advance on Babylon.

Another indication of possible Parthian connections for Jesus' family is his apparent disappearance for many formative years in the East, perhaps to India. The tradition about Jesus in India may really be a story about the Suren Kingdom that was a semi-autonomous part of Parthia in those days, the region later called Khorasan, the supposed place where the Assyrians moved the ten "Lost Tribes" in the eighth century BC. Today we call Didymus Judas Thomas' mission to the East an Indian tradition, yet Thomas was called the "Apostle to the Parthians" by the Early Church (Origen via Eusebius).19/ Eusebius says his bones were "transferred to Edessa" upon his death.20/

Edessa keeps coming up as an important center for Jesus' family. As aforementioned, Edessa had been a Seleucid city that later became Parthian. When Pompey took Edessa, the city remained sympathetic to the Parthians and, during the Kitos War, it also revolted against Rome.

Thomas' familiarity with the East may have grown from Joseph and Mary having retreated there to avoid the Herodian wrath during the "Slaughter of the Innocents." Given the Gospel narratives, Jesus' family probably did go to Alexandria in Egypt and perhaps thence, with funds from Alexandrian Jews, to Babylon and perhaps even to Khorasan. They finally repatriated to Galilee in Palestine to be close to Jerusalem when it was time for Jesus to become the king of the Jews. After Herod the Great's murderous edicts had run their course, whether or not they actually went to India or Parthia, Mary and her royal children returned. This scenario makes sense in light of the connection of Davidic Jews to Babylon. Jesus' family also had other notable Parthian connections more explicitly evident in Early Church commentary and Roman history. James the Just was the spiritual leader (Eisenman says an "opposition high priest") representing a cross-border resistance front, mingled with amalgams of militant Essenes, Zealots, and Sicarii Jews against Herodian administrators and the Roman occupiers.21/

James' specific followers were called Nazirites (mostly non-Hellenistic Jews, which explains their fundamentalist Mosaic fervor), and sometimes Nazoreans or Ebionites, meaning "the poor," not that they themselves had no money but that they provided help to the poor and lived an ascetic lifestyle.22/ These Nazirites were a source of essential services and famine relief efforts to the poor in Palestine. Funding flowed directly from the East through an Iranian Nazirite initiate, Queen Helen of Adiabene, a Parthian protectorate.23/ She provided money for grain and other goods, Eisenman suggesting possibly weapons and military installations.24/

Queen Helen became a Nazirite convert around 30 AD, and she likely met the historical Jesus, who probably returned at that time to Galilee to lead a nascent anti-Roman, Nazirite-Zealot movement with his brother James the Just alongside as the "opposition high priest." Helen's sons, King Izates of Adiabene and his brother Monobazus, also became Nazirites. The timing suggests they were cooperating with Jesus' family if not serving as political-military advisors. Another later Monobazus, and his brother King Kenedaeos, Helen's grandsons, were killed at the Battle of Beth Horon in 66 AD, fighting against Romans at the beginning of the Great Revolt, where a Jewish rebel force destroyed a Roman army.25/ Eisenman reports that Helen's grandsons led the initial assault at the start of the battle.

Eisenman's discussion of the "MMT" Scroll in connection with Helen's family (i.e., "MMT as a Jamesian Letter to 'The Great King of the People Beyond the Euphrates'") suggests Parthian collusion in courting the interest of anti-Roman Jews in the early first-century AD. In this essay, Eisenman addresses Hippolytus' version of Josephus' account of the Essenes, referring to them as "Sicarii," meaning not only "assassin" but also "the circumciser." As such, as Eisenman reveals, Sicarii was as an alternate word for "Christian" and "Zealot."26/ It was used in connection with the brothers of James the Just. Antioch, where Acts says Jewish Christians "were first called Christians," was adjacent to the Carrhae battlefield (there were four different cities named after Antiochus in the Middle East in those days, just as there were several named after Alexander). As Eisenman points out, this city Antioch was in Osroene, in "the area of Haran, the putative kingdom given Izates by his father [Agbarus]," and it was also known as Edessa-by-Callirhoe.27/ A Parthian client and buffer state, the Kingdom of Adiabene abuts this region and may have included Edessa Osroene at this time. What was important to the Jews was that ancient Haran of Carrhae was regarded as the original home of Abraham. In other words, Jewish Christians were firmly associated with, ensconced in, "a center of national reaction against Hellenism."28/

In the First Apocalypse of James, we find James casually described as a disciple prior to the crucifixion, and Jesus tells James to pass a letter to Thaddeus (as Eisenman suggests, probably one and the same person with Thomas Judas, Jude, Christ's brother, possibly his twin) for delivery to King Abgar of Edessa before his crucifixion. As Jeffrey Butz points out (agreeing with Eisenman), Jesus then conveys nothing at all to his followers: "there is no discussion of assigning any final mission to the Twelve as he does at the conclusion of Matthew and Luke."29/ Instead, James is the one who gives instructions to the others, in complete contradiction of the pro-Roman New Testament.

In the Second Apocalypse of James, James relates the secret information (presumably the same information sent to the pro-Parthian King Abgar) to a Jewish Christian priest called "Mariem" among the "Naassenes." Butz identifies this priest as Mariamne, probably the Magdalene, and the "Naassenes" as the Nazoreans, the Nazarenes.30 The more significant implications of this Apocalypse put James at or near the same level as Jesus in importance to the group's leadership, but it also shows Thomas as ambassador to a kingdom connected intimately to the Parthians. One has to see such traveling missionaries, Jesus' brothers in particular, as organizers of pro-Parthian opposition to Rome.

The evidence for such an anti-Hellenizing mission has been lost in 2000 years of focus on the religious aspects of pro-Roman Christianity, and the real political, anti-Roman essence of "Christian" missionary work has been lost. The Kitos War is an example of what could happen with proto-Christian missionary work. As Eisenman points out, the revolts of the Kitos War broke out "as if on signal" all over the Eastern Mare Nostrum when Trajan got close to Babylon.31/

Here, finally, worth noting is that, just prior to the Battle of Beth Horon, the Romans had been engaged in a long war with the Parthians from 54 to 63 AD. When Vespasian later threatened Jerusalem, the Zealot leader John of Gischala sent a message to Jews in Babylon to ask the Parthians to attack the Romans again in supporting the rebels.32/

This is the original point I want to make explicitly that others do not: Jesus is historically (as opposed to religiously) significant because of this Parthian aim to stir up trouble, once again, for the Romans and the Herods. Although there is no direct link connecting Jesus to Parthian collusion in fomenting rebellion, or to the Parthians themselves aside from the tradition of the Magi, there is a mountain of circumstantial evidence connecting his family to such activity and to the East. The answer to the original question, "Why is there a tradition that Magi bearing riches came from the East to honor Jesus Christ?" is this: The tradition reflects the actual case that the Parthians recruited Jesus as a proxy, as their client "king of the Jews."

Peter Fromm
Supervisory Editor, Military Review
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

Fromm was an assistant professor of philosophy and English for six years at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. He studied Chinese philosophy at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. He also studied at the International Christian University in Tokyo and worked in Japan for the U.S. Government for 12 years. He is a retired Army officer.

Reader Comments

  1. History of the Jews in Iran, Wikipedia (see subhead, The Parthian Period), 31 August 2012.
  2. New Revised Standard Version of Matthew 2:1-12.
  3. Joseph Raymond, Jesus Christ, Messiah of Levi?, 10 October 2010.
  4. "History of the Jews in Iran", Wikipedia.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus, (Penguin Books: New York, 1997) 784.
  9. R.E. Dupuy and T.N. Depuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History from 3000 BC to the Present, (Harper and Row: New York, 1986) 116.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid, 117.
  12. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 14, Chapter 13, paragraph 5; see also Jewish Wars, Book 1, Chapter 13.
  13. Ibid, paragraph 3.
  14. "History of the Jews in Iran", Wikipedia: "The Babylonian Jews wanted to fight in common cause with their Judean brethren against Vespasian; but it was not until the Romans waged war under Trajan against Parthia that they acted. To a large extent, the revolt of the Babylonian Jews meant that the Romans did not become masters of Babylonia" (i.e., Parthia).
  15. Joseph Raymond, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Who Was She? 21 January 2007.
  16. Joseph Raymond, Herodian Messiah, (Tower Grove Publishing: Saint Louis, MO, 2010) 72.
  17. Exilarch, Wikipedia: "The first historical documents referring to it date from the time when Babylon was part of the Parthian Empire."
  18. See Acts 13:8-12; See also Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus, (Penguin Books: New York, 1997) 897. Eisenman suggests that Queen Helen's family may well have the instigators of the Great Revolt.
  19. Eusebius, The Church History, translated by Paul L. Maier, (Kregel: Grand Rapids, MI, 1999) 45, 53; See also Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus, ibid at 923, 935.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Eisenman, 908-917.
  22. Ibid, 248-251.
  23. Ibid, 908-917.
  24. Ibid, 880-887, 902.
  25. Ibid, 908-917.
  26. Eisenman, "MMT as a Jamesian Letter to The Great King of the Peoples beyond the Euphrates," Journal of Higher Criticism, (Spring 2005) 55-68.
  27. Ibid; See also Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus, 910.
  28. Osroene, Wikipedia. Also, Eisenman connects Edessa with Adiabene.
  29. Jeffrey Butz, The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity (Inner Traditions: Rochester, Vermont, 2005) 124-131.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus, 911.
  32. Desmond Seward, Jerusalem's Traitor: Josehpus, Masada, and the Fall of Judea (Cambridge MA: De Capo Press, 2009).

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